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Explaining Inaction

Climate Change Mental Inertia

by MANUEL GARCIA, Jr.

Dave Lindorff wrote  of his “speculation about an American conspiracy of inaction…to reduce either this country’s annual production of more atmospheric CO2, or to promote some broader international agreement to slow the production of greenhouse gases,” because “the leaders of the United States…the generals in the Pentagon, the corporate executives of the country’s largest enterprises, and the top officials in government…have secretly concluded that while world-wide climate change is indeed going to be catastrophic, the US…is fortuitously situated to come out on top in the resulting global struggle for survival.”

Any conspiracy, even of inaction, is a willful activity. It requires intentional planning and coordinated actions, or activities of restraint (“inaction”), during the course of the execution of the plan. Has a sufficiently large group of men and women who each have significant political and economic power to collectively steer the US government and economy: 1. intentionally committed to the unified goal of US-dominance through climate-change inaction, and 2. coordinated their efforts?

I lack the data to answer these questions, but nevertheless I am skeptical a conspiracy exists because I think there is a less complicated explanation for the absence of official US action to limit climate change. The culprit is mental inertia.

Physically, inertia is that property of a material body that resists any change in its motion. Any material body with no net force acting on it will move at a constant speed (which could be zero). Application of a force that increases the body’s speed is an acceleration, and removing that force after a period of acceleration leaves the body traveling at a now higher constant speed. Similarly, application of a force that decreases the original speed of the body is a braking force, and its subsequent removal leaves the body at a lower speed (or stopped, or even moving in the reverse direction).

By “mental inertia” I mean the inertia of human behavior, which resists change unless accelerated, or decelerated, or even reversed by the force of a new mental state, some sufficiently potent combination of logical ideas and affecting emotions, which motivate the individual to exert bodily energy to consciously change behavior. One common example is when the bathroom scale finally hits some unbearably high number (or the pants button pops off), and that very day the individual forsakes sugar, alcohol, fatty foods, begins eating greens, and exercising regularly.

The mental inertia of a society is the aggregate of many individual instances of mental inertia.

The city of San Francisco was destroyed by an earthquake in 1906. University of California professor of geology Andrew Lawson was commissioned to study the effects and search for the causes of the earthquake, and with his geology students mapped out the San Andreas Fault down to Southern California. Lawson had first identified the San Andreas Fault in 1895, as a local geological feature of the San Francisco peninsula. Now it was seen to be a major geological rent along the western coast of the North American continent.

Since that time, geologists have mapped out an extensive network of interconnected faults in California. The Hayward Fault, which runs northwest along the eastern margin of San Francisco Bay, slices beneath the densely packed foundations of hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses, and several schools, in the cities of San Jose, Fremont, Hayward, San Leandro, Oakland, Berkeley, El Cerrito and Richmond. The largest earthquake in recorded history along the Hayward Fault was of magnitude 7, in 1868. Geologists estimate a 31 percent probability of a near 7 magnitude earthquake along the Hayward Fault in the next 30 years. Such an event would dwarf all previous natural disasters in the United States. “More than 1.5 trillion US dollars in property exists in the affected area, and more than 165 billion US dollars in damage would likely result if the 1868 earthquake were to reoccur…more than 5 million [people] would be affected directly. The Eastern Span of the Bay Bridge would probably be destroyed” if the earthquake happens before the replacement span is completed, which would sever the direct roadway between Oakland and San Francisco, along with up to 1,100 other roads, the east-west Bay Area Rapid Transit (train) tunnel, and the conduits from the Sierra Nevada sources supplying water to 2.4 million people. (Data from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hayward_Fault_Zone).

Fire fighting and police departments, as well as medical services, would be completely overwhelmed; people would have to fend for themselves for weeks, possibly months. To make self-help more effective it would have had to have been organized beforehand, at a minimum something similar to 1950s Civil Defense. Clearly, a more extensive and — dare one say — compulsory program of regional natural disaster self-help, like Cuba’s regimentation of the civilian population for an effective response to hurricanes, would be necessary to minimize loss of life. While all cities have disaster planning agencies that sponsor training and conduct exercises that citizens may choose to participate in, there is as yet no organized all-inclusive civilian earthquake disaster self-help program in California (or the U.S.).

Why? Mental inertia. Who can’t immediately see the inconveniences and personal costs of being required to organize one’s household for survival on its ruins after the passing of a natural wave of total destruction, which may never occur in your particular lifetime; and of being required to attend lengthy periodic neighborhood and regional disaster training drills, which would feel like a combination of jury duty (imposed time consumption) and a low-impact military boot camp (directed physical exertion outdoors in all weathers)? The aggregate of individual reluctance to devise and practice responses to natural disasters is seen as the societal and governmental failure of responding to the known inevitability of a catastrophic earthquake.

Climate change affects the globe, so its responding Civil Defense effort would have to be a just coordination of nearly 200 national efforts to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions (since the specifics of each nation would require a unique response). There has been no progress in this regard, the international conferences to reach agreements on national emissions caps have all been failures. Within any one nation, the choice faced by individuals is between restraint on the burning of hydrocarbons for the good of the world versus burning fuel as available to reduce their personal toil and increase their productivity and gains. This choice will most often be won by the latter.

Nearly everything that supports the activities of daily life in the United States — civilian, commercial and military — requires copious amounts of energy, by world standards. Most of that energy is obtained by the burning of fossil hydrocarbons. The American standard of living currently exhales 5.6 metric gigatons of carbon dioxide annually (18 metric tons per capita). To significantly reduce this emission, we would have to change EVERYTHING: how we transport ourselves, how we produce our food, how we power our many big businesses, little business, personal projects, entertainments and hobbies.

Technically, this can all be done (and even lead to a very exciting new style of technical civilization), but the process of making this change would be like going through the mandatory Civil Defense earthquake disaster program on a national basis. Nobody wants to do it. The equivalents to bathroom scales, measuring personal energy diets, have yet to hit the unbearably high numbers that force changes of minds and changes of behavior. The choice between “what is good for everybody later” versus “what is good for me right now” is resoundingly won by “me right now.” An awful lot of the world’s problems boil down to “me right now,” global warming induced climate change is just nature’s response to this human attitude.

The aggregate of climate change mental inertia is seen at the national level as “inaction.” No big financial killings nor political careers rocketing to stellar success can occur today on the basis of directing the public into fossil fuel austerity and socialized natural disaster Civil Defense. When — and if — a majority of the US public chooses to embrace an energy-efficient low-waste lifestyle, then their political leaders and barons of industry will awaken to the cause of reconfiguring the energy systems of the nation to limit the degree of climate change.

Manuel García, Jr. is a retired physicist-engineer who worked in a US-DOE laboratory, and has long been interested in energy, both natural and technological. He blogs at http://manuelgarciajr.wordpress.com